Abbi, a young disabled woman in a wheelchair, smiles and laughs

Mental health – “It’s a conversation for everyone”

Abbi was born with a genetic bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as ‘OI’ or brittle bones. She also has mental health conditions.

In this blog, she responds to the speech the Prime Minister made at the annual Charity Commission yesterday. The Prime Minister made an announcement of additional support for those in the workplace with mental health issues.

On my ninth birthday, I was given a fluffy, purple, ‘Groovy Chic’ journal. It was one of those lockable ones which came with a set of tiny keys and quickly became one of my most prized possessions. Inside, I kept all my innermost thoughts – lists of my favourite Beanie Babies, ways in which I could become more like my idol, Jacqueline Wilson.

And regular updates on how much I wanted to die.

We need to feel able to talk about mental illness

In her speech at the annual Charity Commission yesterday, Theresa May noted that 50% of adults with mental health problems began to develop their illnesses before the age of 14. If that seems scary, it is. In fact, by the time I was 14, the only thing I detailed in my diary was my food intake and the number of sit-ups I’d done that day. Yet it would be seven more years before I finally received an intensive course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat my anorexia.

Since the days of my fluffy, purple diary, my mental illnesses have cost the government untold amounts of money in hospital admissions, medications and police call-outs. They have had a tangible effect on my performance at school and university and they continue to cause trouble in both my personal and professional life.

As Mrs May identified yesterday, early intervention is both critical to the recovery of those with mental illness, and of great long-term benefit to the economy. If we want to increase the recognition and treatment of mental illness in children and teenagers, then we urgently need to feel able to talk about mental illness ourselves.

Abbi, a young disabled woman, smiles and sits in her wheelchair behind a table

Mental illness isn’t palatable, but it’s a fact of life

When we talk about talking about mental health, we often make a comparison with how we talk about physical health. Whilst that’s not entirely helpful – our societal and medical treatments of physical illness still have a long way to go – it’s nevertheless often easier to discuss most physical illnesses than it is to discuss most mental ones. I’m happy to publicly disclose that I have both, yet even I regularly blame psychological symptoms on my physical conditions. After all, ‘my arthritis has flared up’ sounds a lot more palatable an excuse than, ‘I’m afraid that if I leave the house, the voices in my head will make me throw myself in front of a bus.’

Mental illness isn’t palatable. It’s rarely an easy fix. But it is a fact of life, and when we make it difficult for people to talk about – when we make employees feel uncomfortable disclosing mental illnesses, or brush off symptoms of self-harm as ‘teenage angst’, or refuse to believe that children might be capable of suicide – then we allow those illnesses to flourish.

Closing her lecture yesterday, Mrs May made an important point – ‘Mental health problems are everyone’s problem.’ Mental illness isn’t just a conversation for doctors’ offices and psychiatric hospitals. It’s a conversation for classrooms, and car rides, and water coolers. It’s a conversation for teachers and parents and friends. It’s a conversation for everyone. Join in.

Read Scope’s response to the Prime Minister’s mental health pledge.

For free information and support about disability, please contact Scope’s helpline at helpline@scope.org.uk.

You can also join Scope’s Online Community where you can share experiences, get disability advice and discuss the disability issues that matter to you.

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